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James Cox Hamilton, at 77; lawyer was quiet warrior for First Amendment

Mr. Hamilton served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union for many years.

James Cox Hamilton did not have to like what you said to defend your right to say it. An ardent supporter of the First Amendment, he took on pro bono cases for the American Civil Liberties Union for decades, offering legal counsel to those who could not afford to pay.

Friends and colleagues also sought his advice and counsel.

“I never did anything without seeking his wise judgment,” said Alan Dershowitz, a scholar of constitutional and criminal law and a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School. “He was one of the wisest men I ever met.”

Mr. Hamilton, who helped found a Boston law firm that nurtured the talents of many lawyers who went on to become prominent, died Aug. 4 in his Truro residence from complications of colon cancer that had metastasized. He was 77 and had lived in Cambridge for many years.


One of Mr. Hamilton’s favorite things to say was “we can resolve this,” Dershowitz said, and he did everything he could to make that happen.

At his law firm, which he founded in 1969, Mr. Hamilton brought in young lawyers eager to hone their skills, among them Michael Ponsor, who is now a senior US District Court judge in Massachusetts.

“He was the sort of person that you lived your life trying not to disappoint,” Ponsor said.

Mr. Hamilton also was generous with encouragement at difficult times, said Ponsor, who recalled an instance when he went to court and was berated by a judge. Upon returning to the office, Ponsor shared his frustrations, and “Jim came out, patted me on the back and told me it was OK.”

While much of the work Mr. Hamilton did with his firm involved corporate law, he served on the ACLU board for many years, with a stint as president.


“Everyone loved him,” said John Roberts, former executive director of the chapter, who praised Mr. Hamilton’s “calmness, his steadiness, and his ability to analyze, and his ability to reach out to others on the board.”

Roberts added that Mr. Hamilton “would take some pretty unpopular cases.”

Over the years, Mr. Hamilton defended the free speech rights of civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael and the Ku Klux Klan’s right to demonstrate in Boston.

Because Mr. Hamilton believed society was safer with true free speech, “I think he was able to deal with explosive issues with care,” said Bliss Austin Spooner of the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts.

Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said Mr. Hamilton’s leadership “really laid a foundation in the 1970s and ’80s and ’90s that we’re still feeling today.”

“He was incredibly gentle,’’ she said, “but he was passionate.”

He also “was always willing to speak out for the underdog,” she said, “but he did it through the force of his logic, rather than the volume of his voice.”

Born in Meadville, Pa., Mr. Hamilton graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1959 from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind.

While at Earlham, he met Margaret Heafield, whom he married in the late 1950s. He was student body president and she was homecoming queen, said their daughter, Lauren of Rhinebeck, N.Y.

The marriage ended in divorce.

His master’s degree in chemistry came from Brandeis University. While there, he sat in on a Harvard Law School class and decided to become a lawyer. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1963.


“He was raised in an innocent time in America when people really believed in all of those things like freedom and justice and honesty,” his daughter said.

Mr. Hamilton worked for the City of Boston and the City of Cambridge before helping launch a firm that changed names a few times over the years.

“He was a kind, gentle, smart, principled person and I knew right away that he was a person of great integrity and incredibly good judgment, and all this proved to be true consistently over the years,” said Gene Dahmen, his longtime law partner and a former president of the Boston Bar Association.

The firm grew to about 15 lawyers at its peak, Dahmen said.

Several years ago, Mr. Hamilton joined the firm Verrill Dana and retired last year.

“It was never about him, it was about the client,” said Dershowitz, who added that Mr. Hamilton “was as tough as nails when he needed to be, but he almost never needed to be because he could always resolve things.”

A group of his friends, family, and former colleagues have put together a scholarship in his name at Earlham College, raising funds in record time, according to school officials.

“He had a wonderful laugh and he just had a tremendous relish for life,” Ponsor said.

In addition to his daughter and former wife, Mr. Hamilton leaves a sister, Virginia Pollard of Conneautville, Pa.; two grandsons; three great-grandchildren; his longtime friend Constance Paige, her son, Paul Chapin Kaynor of Chicago, and his two children.


Family and friends will gather to honor Mr. Hamilton’s life and career on Oct. 10 at the Friends Meeting House at Cambridge. Burial was private.

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.